October 22nd, 2014
Earlier this year prog stalwarts Yes and Ian Anderson both released new albums. Both went on tour in support of their new works. Interestingly, Yes played only a couple of new songs most nights on their tour while doing both Fragile and Close to the Edge in their entirety. Anderson, however, performed the whole of his new work Homo Erraticus for the first leg of his tour (it’s down to seven songs or about half the album now) and then played classic Tull tracks during the second. This got me thinking about how “relevant” new material from established artists is and about how fans react to it. Since this notion popped into my head, U2, formerly one of the most critically revered and most popular bands on the planet, has released a new album which has been, as far as I can tell, almost universally panned with many saying they need to hang it up.
I ran into an interview with Steve Howe from 2012 in which he was asked if he’d ever play on another Yes album. He responded (in part):
You take bands like Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones, bands bigger than anything I’ve been in, and they make new records and nobody really cares. The people want to hear “Satisfaction.” That goes with Yes as well, because people want to hear Close to the Edge. We like playing it. We love it, too. We love the new music but it doesn’t have the familiarity. It is questionable what effect a new album has on well- established bands. Sometimes, you have to step back and ask yourself what you should be doing. I think The Who had one of the most disappointing results when they put out that last album. It was practically ignored and they are The Who.
Howe makes some good points but his comments also raise questions.
Take The Who’s Endless Wire. It reached #6 here on the Billboard charts and #9 in the UK. If you look at setlists from 2006-07 you’ll see that the band were playing 9 songs from the album. (They were also performing “Real Good Looking Boy”, a newish track from 2004 that nonetheless dates from the Endless Wire era.) I’m not sure about the criteria the album charts used in 2006 but the Internet changed so much that you cannot judge an album’s performance in 2006 to that of one in 1976. How do you judge the success of an album in the Internet age?
I’m not arguing that Endless Wire was as big an album as Tommy and I don’t think anyone is expecting a rock album by a well-established act to be as big as the albums from their prime were. I just don’t think it was ignored quite as much as Howe thinks it was.
And what role do artists have these days in getting attention for an album? I think Yes do themselves and their fans a disservice by performing so little new material. In 2013 they played The Yes Album, Close to the Edge, and Going for the One. This year only 3 songs from Heaven and Earth were performed live. Before being dropped early on, “To Ascend” alternated with “Believe Again” while “The Game” was usually in the set. This means that Heaven and Earth was represented by only 1 or 2 songs per show. Fly From Here was much better represented on 2011-12 tours.
On the flip side you have Ian Anderson. Tull tours during the aughts had the occasional new song but mostly rehashed the same tunes from the back catalog with more recent albums being ignored. Then Tull dissolves. Audiences got to hear the whole of TAAB2 back in 2012 and this tour – at least the first leg did – features all of Homo Erraticus. As a fan, I view this as Anderson having confidence in his new material as well as in the audience to engage with it. Heck, fans may even investigate the new album knowing that they’re going to see and hear the whole thing performed before their very eyes. (Of course, some fans may decide to stay away because of a perceived lack of classics.)
Yes does not seem to have confidence in Heaven and Earth nor in audiences to be receptive to it. Having seen them this past summer, both “Believe Again” and “The Game” were very warmly received which leads me to believe that their faith in audiences rejecting new songs was misplaced. At some point today’s classics were new and were performed in front of audiences who were not familiar with them. Here in 2014 Thick as a Brick is a beloved classic but in October 1971 fans were getting a taste of it in concert almost 5 months before the album hit store shelves. Similarly, Close to the Edge is widely considered to be the quintessential Yes album and, as Howe points out, fans want to hear it. But imagine being in Dallas on 30 July 1972 and hearing the unfamiliar strains of “Siberian Khatru” to open the show – Close to the Edge was still more than a month away from hitting stores.
Older bands will always have fans attending their concerts who only want to hear old songs, the songs they got stoned to in high school. So, to be sure, fans have to be willing to give new material a chance. This whole endeavor is a two-way street. But it can be done. If we rewind back to 1987, Jethro Tull had a new album and was hitting the road. There were lots of fans there who wanted to hear “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick”. And they got those songs. But they also got new material. I would argue that at least 2 of those new tunes, “Farm on the Freeway” and “Budapest”, became Tull classics that have, more or less, joined the ranks of “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick” in the minds of fans. It’s the rare Tull/IA tour since 1987 that doesn’t feature at least one of these songs and, when one or both is missing, “Jump Start” and/or “Steel Monkey” was usually there to fill in the gap. Even in 2014 Anderson is performing “Farm on the Freeway”.
As a fan of Yes who enjoys the music they made prior to The Yes Album and after Going For the One, I can sympathize with Howe’s view. I saw Yes this past summer and, while I enjoyed the classic material, I was rather hoping for more tunes from Heaven and Earth and songs that haven’t already been played a billions and billions of times before. I’d also have loved to have heard something from Drama since Geoff Downes is again in the band as well a song or two from We Can Fly.
After the tour in support of We Can Fly Yes then went on tour playing three classic albums in their entirety. And on the tour which just finished, the album was ignored. What message does this send? The one that comes through loud and clear is that the band doesn’t have much interest or confidence in that album. Howe rightly points out a lack of familiarity with the newer songs; so why don’t the band play more of them to help overcome it? Repetition is the key. If you play a few new songs for a while and then drop them for subsequent tours, it’s no surprise that people are unfamiliar with these songs.
Back in 1973 Yes performed Tales from Topographic Oceans in its entirety – before the album was released. Yes (and other well-established bands) need to regain some of that confidence. I’m not saying Yes needs to be out there performing all of Heaven and Earth but rather that it would be more interesting for them to mix the old and the new more evenly. Give long-time fans who stopped caring about new Yes albums in 1979 something but also give a clutch of the newer songs a chance.